Seven Deadly Sins, The

Richard Tarlton (>1588)

Historical Records

Gabriel Harvey, Fovre Letters, and certaine Sonnets ... (1592)

In the third of four letters (1592), Harvey exhausts his abuse of Robert Greene long enough to turn on Nashe, whom he styles Greene's "sworn brother," and to identify Nashe by way of his proxy character, Pierce Penniless. Thinking of Nashe's moralistic caricatures in Pierce Penniless His Supplication to the Devil, Harvey declares it "botched-vp ... according to the stile, and tenour of Tarletons president, his famous play of the seaven Deadly sinnes: which most-dealy, but most liuely playe, I might haue seen in London: and was verie gently inuited thereunto at Oxford, by Tarleton himselfe, of whome I merrily demaunding, which of the seauen, was his owne deadlie sinne, he bluntly aunswered after this manner; By God, the sinne of other Gentlemen, Lechery. Oh but that, M. Tarleton, is not your part vpon the stage, you are too-blame, that dissemble with the world & haue one part for your frends pleasure, an other for your owne. I am somewhat of Doctor Pernes religion, quoth he: and abruptlie took his leaue." (EEBO, 29).

Thomas Nashe, Strange Newes, Of the intercepting certain Letters ... (1592)

The lengthy riposte by Nashe in Strange Newes, Of the intercepting certain Letters ... (1592) is excerpted here: "Hang thee, hang thee, thou common coosener of curteous readers, thou grosse shifter for shitten tapsterly iests, haue I imitated Tarltons play of the seauen deadly sinnes in my plot of Pierce Peniless? ... was sinne so vtterly abolished with Tarltons play of the seuen deadly sins, that ther could be nothing said supra of that argument? Canst thou exemplifie vnto mee (thou impotent moate-catching carper) one minnum of the particular deuice of his play that I perloind? ... Is there any further distribution of sins, not shadowed vnder these 7. large spreading branches of iniquity, on which a man may worke, and not tread on Tarletons | heeles? If not, what blemish is it to Pierce Pennilesse to begin where the Stage doth ends, to build vertue a Church on that foundation that the Deuill built his Chappell?" (McKerrow, I, 304-5)

Theatrical Provenance

Harvey said that he thought he had seen the play in London. Since Tarlton was buried on 3 September 1588, the play must have been written by then. Tarlton had a career with Sussex's players before he joined the Queen's company in March 1583. It is possible that The Seven Deadly Sins was written before 1583, but its resonance for Harvey and Nashe in 1592 makes a guess of post-1583 more attractive.

Probable Genre(s)

Moral (Harbage) NB: Harbage assigned this category to Five Plays in One and Three Plays in One, which he thought were customized versions of The Seven Deadly Sins.

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

None known, unless the playlets of "Envy," "Sloth," and "Lechery" in the Plot of The Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins represent three-sevenths of the original play.

References to the Play

The Harvey and Nashe exchange more properly goes here than in "Historical Records." However, given that these references are the only evidence about the play (unless a Plot of three-sevenths of it survives), it seems appropriate to elevate the Harvey-Nashe exchange to the level of documentary evidence.

Critical Commentary

Fleay, BCED took for granted that the Plot of "The Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins" was a remnant of Tarlton's lost play. He sought further evidence of the original in two plays owned by the Queen's players, "Five Plays in One" and "Three Plays in One", which were in the company repertory in 1584-5. Both were prepared for court, but only "Five Plays in One" was performed.

In his edition of Henslowe's Diary, Greg II agreed with Fleay about the splintering of "Seven Deadly Sins" into the Queen's two plays (p. 153 #13), but in the later Dramatic Documents from the Elizabethan Playhouse he rejected the link to "Five Plays in One", keeping the one with "Three Plays in One" (pp. 109-13). He continued to support the Plot as a remnant of Tarlton's play:

The upshot of our inquiry is, then, that we have in the Plot nothing but the Second Part of The Seven Deadly Sins as originally designed by Tarlton, performed by another company between his death in Sept. 1588 and the spring of 1591 at one of the houses controlled by James Burbage. I have given elsewhere (p. 19) my reasons for ascribing it to Strange's men at the Curtain probably in 1590.

Gurr asserts that "The Seven Deadly Sins" "was evidently a primary feature of the travelling repertoire" of the Queen's players (p. 210). He bases this opinion on Harvey's claim that the invitation to the play had come from Tarlton himself. He points out that the only [surviving] record of "playing in Oxford town" by the Queen's company occurred in 1585 (p. 210); he adds that Harvey was a resident of Cambridge yet avers that "there is no particular reason why he should specify Oxford as the venue if it were not what really happened" (p. 211).

McMillin and MacLean also trust the veracity of Harvey's claims about authorship and venue (Oxford), but they are less enthusiastic about the link to the Plot of "The Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins":

The extant 'plot' of 2 Seven Deadly Sins preserved at Dulwich is often taken to be related to Tarlton's play, but there is no convincing evidence for this connection. The 'plot' does not mention Tarlton or any other Queen's Men, and lists actors connected with Strange's Men in the 1590s. … The Tarlton Sins play (which was never said to be in two parts) must be supposed lost (p. 93).

For What It's Worth

For a fuller picture of the argumentative network concerning "The Seven Deadly Sins," consult also the entries for the Plot of "The Second Part of The Seven Deadly Sins." "Three Plays in One," "Four Plays in One," "Five Plays in One" (Queen's, 1585), and "Five Plays in One" (Admiral's, 1597).

Works Cited

Greg, W. W. Dramatic Documents from the Elizabethan Playhouse. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1931.
Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespearian Playing Companies. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
Harvey, Gabriel. Fovre Letters, and certain Sonnets .... London, 1592. (EEBO)
McMillin, Scott and Sally-Beth MacLean. The Queen's Men and their Plays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Nashe, Thomas. The Works of Thomas Nashe. ed. Ronald B. McKerrow. 5 vols. London: A. H. Bullen, 1905 (Vol. I).

Site created and maintained by Roslyn L. Knutson, Professor Emerita, University of Arkansas at Little Rock; updated 26 March 2012.